Some things aren’t always as they appear. Damon Thibodeaux, who was released last Friday after serving more than fifteen years on death row for a murder he had confessed to committing will tell you this. Through the tireless work of his lawyer, Denny LeBoeuf, his confession was shown to be false. In essence, he hadn’t done what he had told the police he did.
Most of us think a confession is exactly what it purports to be – a straightforward admission of guilt. Why, we ask, would anyone ever confess to doing something they know they didn’t do? But the Thibodeaux case illustrates a point that needs to be made, and a problem that must be avoided in the future. Under certain conditions, individuals can be convinced to falsely confess to a crime because they believe that it is what they need to do – for whatever reason.
Police have often pushed a person into a false confession in the effort to “solve” a case during interrogations. Legal lines can be crossed when interrogators lie about evidence, threaten prison or execution, or use other scare tactics to get a confession. False confessions can result in these circumstances when an individual has cognitive confusion, limited intellectual functioning, substance abuse problems, intense anxiety, or other emotional stressors. Some may think that if they confess falsely, justice will prevail in the end and the truth will be revealed. Sadly, this is not often the case.
In the case of Damon Thibodeaux, psychologists found him, “excessively conflict-avoidant.” That is, he desperately wanted to avoid fighting the prolonged interrogation he was undergoing. He apparently also believed in the power of the truth; that since he knew his confession was false, there would be no way he could be convicted – that the “system” would save him. Well the system did save him, but only after he spent a decade and a half on death row.
Good law enforcement officers know that all confessions should be scrutinized. There should be steps taken to verify statements by forensic evidence, checking sources, and reviewing materials. The best possible way to avoid a false confession is to videotape every statement. Videotaping can be empowering for both the defense and prosecution. But, more than likely, there will be less innocent people convicted if all statements are videotaped.
The tragedy of Damon Thibodeaux is that another innocent man was imprisoned due to “false confession.” Thankfully, he was not executed. We need to do whatever it takes to make sure that no one ever is.